The National Institutes of Health (NIH) on Wednesday approved the first experiments on human embryonic stem cells under the Obama administration’s new research policy.
The NIH authorized 11 stem cell lines produced by scientists at the Children’s Hospital in Boston and two cell lines created by researchers at Rockefeller University in New York, the Washington Post reports. The cell lines were obtained from embryos “left over” by couples who sought fertility treatments.
“This is a real change in the landscape," NIH Director Francis Collins said, according to the Washington Post.
He characterized the move as a “first down payment” that will “empower the scientific community to explore the potential of embryonic stem cell research."
Collins, who is an evangelical Christian, claimed there is an argument that the research is ethically acceptable “even if you believe in the inherent sanctity of the human embryo.”
Proponents of stem cell research hope to use adult or embryonic stem cells to create better treatments for ailments ranging from diabetes to spinal cord injuries.
Human embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) requires the destruction of human embryos.
Richard M. Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) criticized the NIH action.
“Ethically, we don't think any taxpayer should have to fund research that relies on destroying early human life at any stage,” he told the Washington Post. “But the tragedy of this is multiplied by the fact that no one can think what the problem is that can only be solved by these cells.”
Collins reported that the 13 cell lines approved on Wednesday met the requirements finalized by the NIH in July. Another 96 lines are awaiting approval, including 20 that will be considered by the advisory committee on Friday. At least 254 more will be submitted for approval.
The NIH has authorized 31 grants totaling about $21 million for research on human embryonic stem cells pending their approval under the new guidelines, the Washington Post says.
Many embryonic stem cell researchers hope to use the $10 billion the NIH received as part of the U.S. government’s economic stimulus package, Collins reported.
President George W. Bush had funded embryonic stem cell research on cell lines created before August, 2001 but barred funding on research which used cell lines created afterward.
President Obama overturned the Bush policy in March 2009.
The new NIH rules allow the funding of research which uses stem cells harvested from fertility clinic embryos and also outline informed consent standards for women or couples who donate their embryos.
In May Msgr. David Malloy, then the General Secretary of the USCCB, criticized the NIH guidelines for ESCR. He said they were "broader or more permissive” than previous policy in key respects.
“We are testing the limits of our obligation to treat all fellow human beings, of every age and condition, with basic respect,” he commented, saying it is a human right not to be subjected to harmful experimentation.
In a Wednesday statement, U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell noted that the announcement “marks an historic departure from our nation’s longstanding position of neutrality on embryo-destructive research.”
“For the very first time in U.S. history, the federal government will now use taxpayer dollars to pay for research that relies on and promotes the destruction of human life at its earliest stages. Americans may disagree about the morality of embryo-destructive research. But one thing we should all agree on is that taxpayers should not be compelled to pay for it.”
Archbishop of Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali has said the NIH policy encourages the destruction of “living embryonic human beings,” and treats those human beings as “objects to be created, manipulated and destroyed for others’ use.”